Wednesday, 26 January 2022

A Human Position (Anders Emblem, 2022)

As with his 2018 debut feature Hurry Slowly, A Human Position—currently screening at the International Film Festival Rotterdam—sees director Anders Emblem firmly on home territory in the western Norwegian town of Ålesund; in a further parallel with Hurry Slowly, A Human Position's leading role is played by Amalie Ibsen Jensen.  The excellent Jensen brings a haunted quality to the troubled Asta, a young journalist working for an Ålesund newspaper, for which she reports on matters including football, proposed redevelopment, and the various cruise ships lined up in the town's expansive port.  Asta performs well in her job, one which appears to serve as a welcome distraction from some darker issues lurking around the edges of the reporter's life; in one scene at the home she shares with upholsterer/budding musician Live (Maria Agwumaro) and an incredibly cute cat, Asta is shown applying some sort of cream to her stomach before she turns in for the night.

While most of the stories covered by Asta leave little in the way of a lasting impression on the young woman, things change when she stumbles across the sorry tale of Aslan, an asylum seeker who once worked in the town but has since vanished; word is that Aslan has been deported, but Asta senses that there's something more to the story.  As she digs deeper into the mystery, Asta encounters much in the way of red tape, and she speaks to several town officials, all of whom seem to have mastered the art of talking a lot while saying nothing.  Yet the passive aggressiveness that meets these enquiries does little to deter Asta, who doggedly sticks to piecing together Aslan's movements in the time leading up to his disappearance.  As with Antonioni's L'Avventura, there's a nagging feeling that this puzzle is one bound to remain unsolved.

While A Human Position feels far from didactic—Emblem largely invites the viewer to interpret the film however they like—it implies that Aslan's fate is the fault of both everyone and no one.  As such, it recalls Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, a film that cast a cold, unblinking eye over the notion of collective responsibility (or lack of it).  The wealth and stability of Norway stand in sharp contrast with the circumstances that the unseen Aslan sought asylum from (and has purportedly been returned to).  It is to the film's great credit that we get a real sense of the missing man, and just as Asta seems to make a tangible connection to him via the chair favoured by Aslan during his work breaks, the viewer is able to form a picture of this notable absentee (his choice of seat highlights an obvious motif in A Human Position, given that Asta and Live's home is scattered with chairs in various states of repair).  Asta, unlike many others in her hometown, has opted to be interested in Aslan's story, and this same choice is extended to the viewer. 

Although it clocks in at less that 80 minutes, A Human Position could certainly be classed as an example of slow cinema; it's a deliberately paced tale, full of long static takes and icily impressive shots of Ålesund—a town in which Asta and Live appear to be two of just a handful of inhabitants.  While the film encourages us to fill in the blanks around the stories of both Asta and Aslan, there's never the sense that Emblem is trying to frustrate his audience; despite its refusal to tie up its various loose ends, A Human Position stands as a curiously satisfying experience.  It's a measured, haunting slice of cinema, and the sparsely populated streets of Ålesund provide plenty of room for both Asta and the viewer to mull over the many possibilities regarding the sad, strange case of Aslan.  While always a low-key affair, A Human Position is a memorable, affecting work.

Darren Arnold

Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Looking for Muriel

The late Alain Resnais (pictured above, courtesy of Eureka Video) was a true giant of cinema, and his 1963 film Muriel, or The Time of Return is a longstanding favourite of mine. While Resnais made several films widely considered to be classics (including Last Year at Marienbad, Night and Fog and Hiroshima mon amour), I have an unshakeable belief that the shattering Muriel remains his crowning achievement. For some time, I had wanted to write a detailed study on this extraordinary film, and in early 2020—just before COVID cast its long shadow over the world—I started work on Looking for Muriel, which has just been published simultaneously in hardback and paperback by BearManor Media. I thoroughly enjoyed both working with the team at BearManor and exploring the many diverse areas surrounding Muriel, and I hope this comes across in the writing.

I'm very grateful to each and every person who buys my books, so should you choose to order Looking for Muriel, please know that your purchase is greatly appreciated. The book is available directly from the publisher, and it can also be had from various Amazon stores, including those in the US, the UK, Australia and France. Amazon in both Canada and the Netherlands currently have the book up for pre-order, with an ETA of 21 January. Of course, there are a number of other Amazon stores beyond those mentioned here; if you'd like to check if the book is available from your country's site, simply visit that particular store and plug the following number into the search box:

Monday, 20 December 2021

Merry Christmas!

🎄🎄🎄 Season's Greetings! See you all in 2022!

Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Slumber Party Massacre (Danishka Esterhazy, 2021)

Like many a Roger Corman production, 1982's The Slumber Party Massacre certainly possesses a ragged charm, and the same could be said of its two sequels.  Each film in the trilogy has a different director—nothing too unusual about that, but it's the fact that all three directors are female that makes the series stand out from the typical horror fare that peppered the 1980s.  There's a sly wit at play in all three films, yet it's the ludicrously unhinged (and NSFW) "Let's Buzz" sequence in the second instalment that always sticks in my mind; it's a marvellously OTT scene, one that provides a tantalising glimpse of what Grease may have looked like had it been directed by Abel Ferrara.  The guitar featured in "Let's Buzz" makes a fleeting appearance in the new Slumber Party Massacre—which drops the definite article from the title—and the inclusion of this deadly instrument provides welcome proof that those behind the remake are tuned in to both the content and humour of the original films.  

While the 2021 version of Slumber Party Massacre—which will be available digitally on 13 December—is a work that's described as a "modern reimagining" of the original movie, in truth it probably sits halfway between homage and straight-up remake.  A good comparison might be the 2019 take on Black Christmas, which put a contemporary spin on both Bob Clark's horror classic and its crass 2006 remake.  Although 1974's Black Christmas is a far more accomplished film than the original Slumber Party Massacre, it's actually the latter that has benefitted more from the remake treatment; while the 2019 Black Christmas was not without its moments, it was a bit too on the nose, whereas the 2021 Slumber Party Massacre employs a subtlety that isn't immediately obvious amidst all the blood and chaos.  Even if its limited budget occasionally shines through—it's quite evident that not all of the death scenes could feature top-drawer effects, so some judicious editing has been employed—director Danishka Esterhazy has mounted a fairly handsome production, one that was filmed entirely in South Africa with a local cast.

Beginning in 1993 with a cabin slumber party in which almost all of the attendees come to a grisly end, the film then moves to the present day and the home of sole survivor Trish (Schelaine Bennett), whose daughter Dana (Hannah Gonera) is about to join her friends for a girls' weekend in the country.  As is to be expected, Trish is most nervous about Dana heading off to a gathering that sounds remarkably similar to one that concluded with several young women being butchered.  Equally unsurprisingly, Dana seems very relaxed about it all, and her friends Maeve (Frances Sholto-Douglas), Breanie (Alex McGregor) and Ashley (Reze-Tiana Wessels) soon arrive to pick her up; en route, the girls discover a stowaway in the form of Maeve's younger sister Alix (Mila Rayne), and it isn't long after this drama that the car breaks down on account of a problem with its radiator hose.  Forced to rethink their plans in order to salvage the weekend, the girls organise a new rental property at another campground, which is actually the site of the 1993 massacre operating under a (slightly) different name.

To say any more would be to spoil the twisty narrative that ensues, as Slumber Party Massacre manages, with some style, to pull the rug from under the audience's feet on more than one occasion.  Esterhazy has some experience in repurposing fondly remembered, decades-old material, given that she previously directed The Banana Splits Movie, and with Slumber Party Massacre she has fashioned a lively, smart slasher movie that manages to acknowledge its roots while feeling fairly fresh.  That the film—like all the entries in the original trilogy—comes in at well under 90 minutes is also a real positive, especially in the age of the bloated running time, and the film moves along at a nice clip.  Slumber Party Massacre may not be a perfect film, but it comes off especially well when you consider the glut of 80s horror remakes that have fallen flat; the likes of Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, The Fog and Poltergeist are among those titles remade to mediocre effect.  Perhaps it helps that Slumber Party Massacre, like the series it's based on, is made on a budget that precludes anything too elaborate; should it maintain this level of quality, another instalment (or even two) would be no bad thing. 

Darren Arnold

Images: Strike Media

Thursday, 11 November 2021

Babi Yar. Context (Sergei Loznitsa, 2021)

Babi Yar. Context was one of just two titles to fly the Dutch flag at last month's London Film Festival, the other being Paul Verhoeven's mildly outrageous Benedetta.  Cannes favourite Sergei Loznitsa—whose Den Haag-based production company Atoms & Void has been behind every one of the director's films from 2014's Maidan on—has quite a pedigree, with his past projects including Donbass, In the Fog and The Event.  Loznitsa is a filmmaker who's as at home with the documentary format as he is with drama, with Babi Yar. Context falling into the former category; as with the director's previous non-fiction efforts, the film mainly lets its footage speak for itself—although there are a smattering of title cards to signpost the way.  If you haven't read up on the film prior to watching it, the early stages might prove quite difficult to get a grip of, but it's not too long before Babi Yar. Context provides a bit of, well, context.     

Made with assistance from the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, Loznitsa's film takes a long, unblinking look at an atrocity that happened just over 80 years ago, when Sonderkommando 4a of Einsatzgruppe C massacred more than 33,000 Jews in Kiev's Babi Yar ravine. Like numerous horrors of WWII, the events of Babi Yar have largely remained out of public consciousness, but Sergei Loznitsa places us firmly in the centre of a nightmare as we witness civilians being brutalised for the duration of a journey that will culminate in their slaughter.  As appalling as this crime is, Babi Yar. Context mines much of its horror from something beyond the obvious: the indifference of many of Kiev's citizens, who carried on with their daily business as the bodies piled up. The apathy on display recalls the words of Albert Einstein: "The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything".

When the Nazis invaded Ukraine in 1941, many welcomed their presence; posters of Stalin were torn down, and Hitler was widely viewed as a great liberator.  Although the Red Army retook Kiev in late 1943, this was long after the executions at Babi Yar, which had since become the elephant in the room for locals understandably keen to brush over the atrocity that had taken place in their back yard.  Loznitsa doesn't shy away from showing us the victims of Babi Yar, and while no film exists of the actual killings, there's no shortage of footage of the endless mound of bodies scattered across the ravine.  Yet what is arguably Babi Yar. Context's most horrifying moment occurs when we are shown a dozen Nazi criminals being hanged in Kiev's packed main square; while we've already seen footage of the trials that preceded these executions, it does little to take the sting out of these graphic, distressing images.  The inclusion of such material is indeed a brave move, one that poses some very difficult questions; most viewers will be pleased to learn that these men were sentenced for their awful crimes—but how many will truly want to see the death penalty being carried out?             

While Babi Yar. Context cannot be described as an enjoyable experience, its real value lies in its assembling of this footage into a coherent whole, one which chronicles an event that has been all but erased from the history books.  The film is primarily of importance as a document of record, yet its director quite reasonably hopes that it also contains lessons for today and tomorrow.  Given its rather unusual content, Babi Yar. Context is a tough work to evaluate in typical terms, but the extremely worthwhile nature of the project eclipses any requirement for the film to entertain (or even engage) the viewer.  Some may wish for a little more in the way of commentary, but the film invites the viewer to read around the events of Babi Yar and other, similar atrocities.  Sergei Loznitsa's film makes for a chilling, sobering experience, and it operates firmly outside of our expectations of cinema—documentary or otherwise.   

Darren Arnold

Monday, 1 November 2021

LFF 2021: the stats

The 65th BFI London Film Festival closed with a star studded finale on Sunday, October 17, with the European Premiere of The Tragedy of Macbeth at new Festival venue the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall with director Joel Coen and key cast, including Frances McDormand, in attendance. Over the 12 days of the Festival, the new Headline Gala venue helped to localise a buzzing new cultural heart for the LFF just South of the river, alongside the BFI’s home at BFI Southbank. Every night saw vibrant red carpets with a truly dazzling array of international talents on stage as well as in the audience.

The Festival also had audiences back in cinemas over the 12 days with a fresh new model which included dual West End hubs in London, 10 partner cinema venues around the UK, a new live exhibition of Immersive Art and XR at Leake St, Waterloo, as well as virtual programmes of film and XR. There were 139.4k physical attendances at screenings, events and the LFF Expanded exhibition and 152.3K virtual attendances. The Opening Night Gala, The Harder They Fall, also simultaneously screened at 41 venues around the UK.

The 65th edition welcomed over 200 International and British filmmakers, XR artists and series creatives to present their work at venues across the capital. The Festival featured a fantastic range of 161 (includes 2 x Late Additions and the Surprise Film) feature films from both established and emerging talent and hosted 21 World Premieres, 7 International Premieres and 12 European Premieres and welcomed a stellar line up of cast and crew for many of the films. Films from 77 countries around the world; 39% of the programme from female and non-binary directors/creators or co-directors/creators with 40% made by ethnically diverse directors/creators.

This year, a new partnership with the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall saw London’s South Bank become the heart of the film festival experience, with this iconic cultural neighbour hosting nightly red carpet gala premieres alongside flagship venue BFI Southbank. Films also screened across a number of other London venue partners and a selected programme was available to audiences at UK-wide cinema partners with a broad range of films from the programme also screening on BFI Player, alongside the in-cinema premieres.

Source/image: BFI